The sloth bear is a small- to medium-size bear found in the lowland forests of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Able to thrive in a variety of habits, including thorn scrub, grasslands and dense forests, as long a sufficient food supply is available, these animals are unique among bear species in that they feed primarily on ants and termites like and anteater and females carry their young on their back. [Source: Adele Conover, Smithsonian; John Eliot, National Geographic, November 2004]
The first reports of sloth bears by European hunters in India described their trunklike snouts, their habit of hanging from tree limbs and their baby-like cries. John Eliot wrote in National Geographic, “ Scientific blunders can live on forever. When 18th-century European museum curators were first sent specimens of a large furry mammal with long curved white claws, they named it "bear-like sloth" because its claws resemble those of South American sloths. Later taxonomists realized that the species was a tropical bear unrelated to sloths, but its wrongheaded name remains---the sloth bear. They sound like bellows when using their flexible snouts and lips to blow away dirt and suck up termites and ants. But don't be misled: This frowsy, gentle-looking bear can be ferocious, occasionally mauling or killing villagers who enter the forest. Yoganand often talks with villagers to help minimize conflicts. "Attacks can be prevented if people avoid certain places."
It is estimated that between 10,000 and 25,000 sloth bears remain, primarily in enclaves scattered across India, where between 6,000 and 11,000 of them live . Their numbers have been reduced by poaching and habitat loss. In the old days they were hunted out of many areas. Now they survive mostly in isolated enclaves. In some part of India cubs are abducted for the dancing bear trade. Sloth bears many of the same areas as tigers and conservation efforts to help tigers have also helped sloth bears.
Sloth bears are 1.4 to 1.8 meter (4½ to 6 feet) long, with a 7 to 13 centimeter tail. Looking like big balls of unkept fur, they have a stocky body and short, powerful limbs. The animals’ course fur gives them a slovenly appearance but it also helps protect them from stinging insect bites. The fur is thickest on the back of the neck, making the bear look like it has a mane. The fur is relatively sparse on its belly and underlegs, perhaps to keep the animal cool in hot weather. Sloth bears have long, non-retractile foreclaws and a white V on their upper chests that varies from a U shape to a Y or O. In the old days hunters used the white mark as target when they shoot the bears. They don’t seem to be too bothered by the heat and often seen sleeping in the day, exposed to the hot tropucal sun.
Sloth Bear Behavior
Sloth bears are generally solitary and nocturnal but can be observed at any time of the day. The only time males and females come together is to mate (often in June and July). Generally, the only groups are a mother with cubs but brief groups of five to seven bears have been observed, communicating with strange facial expressions and a variety of sounds. Sloth bears spend much of their ambling along in a slow, deliberate fashion, looking for food. If motivated they can gallop at a relatively high speed. Sloth bears generally don’t hibernate but retreat to caves and have a period of relative inactivity during the rainy season.
Sloth bears can not be accused of sloth. They are quite busy. They spend almost all their free time searching for food. They generally don’t defend territories; they just roam to where the food is. Their long claws are ideal for digging and fending off attacks not so good for climbing trees, which many other bears their size are good at. They produce a variety of sounds, including roars, squeals, howls, huffs, yelps, rattles and gurgles. They are particularly noisy when mating, when they also engage in mack fighting and hugging. When resting they make humming and buzzing noises sucking on their paws.
Sloth bears are known for their pugnacity and aggressiveness They can do some serious damage with their long claws. They sometimes bite with their semi-toothed muzzle and hold on like a pit bull. Females are generally accommodating to other females. Fights sometimes break out between males.
Sloth bears have been observed fighting with tigers and holding their own. One ranger told Smithsonian magazine he observed a sloth bear slap a tiger in the face and push it away. The tiger fled after that. The same ranger said the once saw a sloth bear take on three large tigers, each of which fled in a different direction after the encounter. However, tigers do kill sloth bears more often than visa versa. In most cases a tiger can kill a sloth bear of it wants to but is fearful if suffering severe wounds in the process.
Sloth bears are regarded as very intelligent, employing reasoning when they feed. Sometimes before a rainstorm they dig a number of small holes in a termite nest and allow the rain to make them bigger before they dig up the hole. Like other bears, sloth bears can stand up on their hind legs, It first though this was a sign of aggression but it turns out they seem to do it to get a better view or survey the landscape and. more importantly, to sniff the air for food or danger.
Sloth Bear Feeding
Half the sloth bear’s diet is termites, ants and beetle larvae. Termites are an especially abundant and reliable food source in the tropics. They also feed on fruits, roots, tubers, honey, eggs and flowers. Occasionally they will eat the remains of a tiger kill. They sometimes raid maize, sugar cane and yam fields and comepte with villagers to collect sweet Mohwa flowers. Sloth bears competes with wild cats, canids and pigs for ants and termites.
Sloth bears have a long, extremely flexible snout, nostrils that close, almost prehensile lips and no incisors on their upper jaw. These adaptions allow they suck up large amount of ants and termites. They retain their lower canines, presumably for fighting. John Eliot wrote in National Geographic, “The front end of a sloth bear is unmistakable. From its shaggy black head protrudes a long whitish muzzle. The three-inch-long front claws are ivory white. These are the tools of this specialized bear's trade: feeding on termites and ants by ripping up their mounds and nests. “
Sloth bears feed by tearing open termite and ant mounds in soil, old logs or trees with their foreclaws and pushing their long, flexible snouts into hole and blowing away the dirt around termites. When it eats it closes its nostrils and purses its lips and sucks insects like a vacuum cleaner through a gap in formed by missing upper incisor teeth and a hollowed out upper palate. The sucking sound they make can be heard 200 metes away. The bears leave behind a hole wide and deep enough for a man to stand in up to his chest. It is estimated that a sloth bears eats between 4,000 and 10,000 ants or termites at one time (between a pint and quart).
Sloth bears have been observed in the spring feeding on honeycombs hand from tree branches, A 1977 article in Journal of Zoology read: “Uisng the claws as hooks, the bears can climb large diameter trunks. They descend by sliding backwards, sometimes making use of hanging creepers. On one occasion a bear was seen straddling a horizontal branch using a forepaw to scoop up honeycomb from below the brancg and periodically wiping the bees from his face.” Although the beers cry out when stung the continue at it until the whole honeycomb is consumed.
Sloth Bears and Their Young
The gestation period for sloth bears us around six or seven months. Bacuse they usually give birth in December or early January it is thought the experience delayed implantation.
Sloth bears give birth to their young in a den, often cave, natural hollow or hole dug by the bear under a large rock. Typically a female gives birth to two cubs in November to January. The cubs are born helpless and hairless and the mother stays with them for 35 days before emerging from the den. The cubs stay in the den for two to three months. After that the mother sloth carries her cubs “bearback” until they are about six months old, when they may as much as third of their mother’s weight. The cubs become independent when they are around two.
Sloth bears are the only species of bear that carry their young on their back. Their long course fur is easy to grip. Mothers carry their young like this perhaps as a precaution against tigers, leopards and other predators, allowing her to hold off potential attackers while her young are safe behind her. The cubs cling to their mother’s back even when she is digging a termite nest or charging a tiger. They rarely change their position, with one cub riding near the neck and the other near the rumps and always maintaining those positions. When alarmed the cub bury themselves in their mother’s fur.
At about three months, the cubs start to briefly come off their mother; back to play and snoop around. With the slightest threat they leap back on their mother’s back. Cubs will remain with their mother for three years, a year longer than other bear species, before heading out on their own. During their time together, the mother gives the cubs essential training. Orphans don’t know which part of a termite mound to dig and can climb trees fine but get stuck and don’t know how to get down.
Sloth Bears and Humans
Sloth bears are very dangerous for humans. In hostile encounters with people sloth bears often attack the head. Villagers get raked with the bear’s large claws and their face becomes a pulpy mess. In some places more people are injured by encounters with sloth bears than tigers. These places usually have large human populations that encroach on bear territory.
In Panna National Park in central India, 80 people were attacked by sloth bears between 1980 and 1997 and three were killed. Many attacks occur because a bear absorbed in what it is doing is suddenly disturbed by a human. A sloth bears usual response to such a surprise is to launch a terrifying mock charge, followed by roaring and an upright display. Usually the bear backs down but sometimes it will attack. If confronted by a sloth bear one should make a big ruckus. This usually scares it off. Be particularly careful around a mother with cubs. If a bear does attack some recommend playing dead.
David O’Conner wrote in National Geographic: “If a bear feels threatened, it will launch a swift and vicious attack that will send even a hungry tiger running. Such ferocity doesn't help unsuspecting people who surprise a bear in the forest. Three-inch-long (eight-centimeter-long) digging claws with 150 to 300 pounds (70 to 140 kilograms) of angry bear behind them can leave devastating wounds. Often when humans stumble upon a tiger or a leopard, the big cat will run away---providing it's not hunting. A startled bear, however, will attack. That, plus the horrific wounds they can inflict, explains why people in some areas of India are more afraid of the insect-eaters than the carnivores.”
Indian researcher K. Yoganand has studied sloth bears for more than ten years. John L. Eliot wrote in National Geographic: One goal of his research has been to track the roamings of a dozen radio-collared bears in the dry deciduous forests of India's Panna National Park. He's discovered that some bears have home ranges of up to 40 square miles (100 square kilometers). His conclusion: "We need to protect large patches of their habitat and maintain links between those patches. Unfortunately sloth bears have to compete with charismatic species such as tigers. The bears get far less attention than they deserve."
Dancing Sloth Bears
Sloth bears are the original dancing bears. For centuries they have been captured by Qalanders, an itinerant group of performers, and taken from village to village to performer for handouts from villagers. The bears are trained to do tricks as well as dance. To keep them under control the bears often have a ring through bones of the animal’s nose, mouth and muzzle. The original dancing bear reportedly began dancing after eating fermented Mohwa tree flowers. Today a pull on the rope is all that is necessary to get a bear to "dance" in pain.
Some Qalander traders live near forest where the bears live. Cubs are abducted by poachers from their dens when they are three to five weeks old and typically sold at markets when they are three months old for around $100. Sometimes well-trained bears can fetch $600. Studies have shown that urban people and tourists are most interested in seeing the bears dance. Rural people just want to see a bear because they believe the bear will protect their of children from evil spirits.
In India there are around a thousand dancing sloth bears. Animal welfare groups are working with Qalandars to try to convince them to give up their bears.
In May 2006 AP reported: Amsterdam Sloth bears at the Beekse Bergen Safari Park in Holland treed a Barbary Macaque (a monkey sometimes referred to as a Barbary Ape) and then ate it in front of horrified zoo-goers. A zoo statement confirmed the incident. "In an area where Sloth bears, great apes and Barbary macaques have coexisted peacefully for a long time, the harmony was temporarily disturbed during opening hours on Sunday." Apparently several Sloth bears chased the Barbary macaque into an electric fence, where it was stunned. It then fled onto a wooden structure, where one bear pursued and mauled it to death. Other bears then consumed the simian. [Source: AP, - May 15, 2006]
Dancing Sloth Bears and Their Owners
Ammu Kannampilly of AFP wrote: “The tradition of forcing sloth bears to dance for entertainment dates back to the 13th century, when trainers belonging to the Muslim Kalandar tribe enjoyed royal patronage and performed before the rich and powerful. Descendants of the tribe from central India had kept the tradition alive, buying bear cubs from poachers for about 1,200 rupees ($22) and then hammering a heated iron rod through their sensitive snouts. After removing the animal's teeth and claws, the bear trainer threaded a rope through its snout and then headed for the streets where onlookers would pay a few rupees for a show in which the bear would sway and jump around.[Source: Ammu Kannampilly, AFP, December 2, 2012 <>]
“One of the owners to give up was Mohammed Afsar Khan, a 30-year-old father of three girls who used to work with his father and brother travelling across central India with three bears in tow. He says he used to earn about 300 rupees a day until he gave up the job six years ago. "It's a hard life. You can never settle in one place, your children can't go to school, you end up feeling trapped. Then you are always worried about police harassing you for bribes," he said. <>
“The bears recovered by animal groups were often in a wretched state, suffering from infected snouts, root canal problems, even diseases such as tuberculosis which they contracted from humans. The sloth bears also suffer from malnutrition after being fed bread, lentils and milk for years, leading to an extremely reduced life span. <>
Vivek Menon from the non-profit Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) told AFP that the dancing bear industry was also "a dominant cause behind the disappearance of the sloth bear" -- a focus at the bear conference which focused on conservation and welfare. In the last three decades, the number of sloth bears -- a species native to South Asia -- has fallen by at least 30 percent, according to the IUCN-SSC Bear Specialist Group (BSG). There are now less than 20,000 of them. "The widespread poaching of bear cubs and the killing of mother bears clearly affects the population of the species," Menon told AFP. <>
Qalanders: the Caste of Dancing Bear Handlers
The Qalanders are itinerant people who travel from village to villager with performing animals. Found throughout South Asia, particularly in northern India and Pakistan, they do rope climbing, magic tricks, puppetry, tightrope walking, music and tricks with trained animals. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia , edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company]
There are several tens of thousands Qalanders. They share a number of characteristics with the Roma (Gypsies): a similar language and similar nomadic habits. The Qalanders are very good with languages. Many of them can speak five or more languages. They are mostly illiterate. Their nomadic lifestyle precludes attending schools. The Qalanders have a very long history. Entertainers with bears and monkeys are mentioned in texts from the Vedic era (1000 to 700 B.C.) They are also mentioned in many old folk tales and histories.
Qalanders have traditionally viewed the world in terms of themselves and outsiders and prefer to keep their relations with outsiders limited to business and entertainment situations. They typically have a normal circuit and try to visit every village and town on that circuit twice a year. They try to vary their routine and visit when it is not expected so as to generate an element of surprise and novelty to their visits. The Qalanders have carefully studied the customs of the villagers they visit and have tried to figure out the best way to exploit them. At the same times they are reluctant to reveal information about themselves, lest their lifestyle be altered. Thus little is known about them.
Qalanders own no land or permanent shelters. They travel around in carts pulled by donkeys and sleep in tents. All their possession are carried with them. Their tents are of the Bender type used by peripatetics throughout Asia. The tents have barrel-vaulted ribs supported by vertical end poles and horizontal ridge poles. Qalanders tend to pitch them in fallow fields, along canal banks or near railroad tracks. In urban areas they set up their tents in vacant lots. Viscous dogs are kept to guard their camps. They subsist on chapatis, cooked lentils and cereals, vegetables, goat’s milk and tea.
Qalanders often announced their presence by banging on small but highly resonant drums and/or goatskin bagpipers. They also use the same instruments to provide background music for their routines. They try yo hit villages and towns right after the harvest and accept wheat and other grains for payment and try finding work at weddings and festivals. They may hit as many as three villages a day. The grain they receive is taken to markets and exchanged for cash, silver and gold and other goods they need. As the post harvest season comes to end they head to the cities.
The Qalanders traditionally migrated between Peshawar and Delhi but their routes were disrupted by the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 and trouble in the Punjab in the 1980s.
Qalander Trades and Society
One survey in the mid 1980s found hat 15 percent of Qalander families owned bears. The preferred animal was a Kashmiri black bear, which has a distinctive white V on its chest. A few had larger Asian brown bears. There are more dangerous and difficult to maintain. Both species are not adapted to the climate of India and suffer in the heat. Irritated bears have killed their handlers with a single blow or attack. [Source: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: South Asia , edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company]
Audiences like the bear routine because they are interesting and carry an element of danger and they often earn the most money. The wars in Afghanistan and Kashmir have made obtaining bears difficult and many bear handling families have turned to rhesus monkeys (macaques).
Monkeys have traditionally been obtained from hill tribes and taught to imitate human situations such as feuding lovers, police and soldiers and trained to ride bicycles, dance and walk on tight ropes. Monkeys are less expensive to maintain and breed better in captivity than bears. Qalanders also train goats and dogs to do balancing acts.
Qalanders also are skilled jugglers, acrobats, magicians, impersonators. Children and women also beg. Sometimes women work as prostitutes or exchange sexual favors for camping privileges or grazing rights. Sometimes the nail clippings and hair from the bears are sold for amulets that are said to ward off disease. Qalanders are flexible and adaptable, making money any way they can.
Qalanders generally only marry other Qalanders. Marriages have traditionally been arranged and have been important in forming alliance and determining who travels together, Divorces are relatively common. Engagements, marriages and divorces occupy a lot of the Qalander’s time. The basic family is the puki , a household that shares a tent. In most cases it is a nuclear family.
A group that travelers together is usually made up of three to seven puki and is called a dera . The group usually consists of a mixture of skilled performers and animal acts and is united in various economic and family concerns. Compatibility is necessary because the group is together so much. Oftentimes they are united by marriage. Leaders are often the bear handlers.
Qalanders have their own justice system that they use to settle disputes. Causes of disputes include fights between spouses, adultery, feuds over money, disagreements about travel routes and demands by parents and group members. The matters are sometimes worked out using lawyers and judges in a formal trial. The settlements involve the paying of fines, public apologies, and banishment. Before a settlement is reached the parties involved agree to accept the judgement of the trial.
Qalanders are regarded as agnostics, They say the are Hindus, Muslims, Christians or Sikhs depending on what suits their best interest. They do believe in the evil eye and wear charms and amulets to protect themselves. Many suffer from chronic malaria or typhoid, When an individual is too old to travel or walk he or she is considered dead and left behind. The dead are wrapped in a clean white cloth, sprinkled with perfume and buried in an unmarked grave, usually within 36 hours after death.
India's 'Dancing Bears' Forced Retire by Animal Rights Activists
Ammu Kannampilly of AFP wrote: “The sight of poorly fed and badly treated bears being forced to dance on the streets of India is a thing of the past as a campaign to wipe out the practice has finally borne fruit, activists say. "It's taken us many years but all the tribesmen we keep track of have moved on to different livelihoods,"Vivek Menon from the non-profit Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), told AFP. "The tradition might still be present in people's minds, of course, but we don't know of any cases where Kalandars are still practising it." [Source: Ammu Kannampilly, AFP, December 2, 2012 <>]
“The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) and India-based Wildlife SOS, which runs sanctuaries for bears, have also declared an end to the practice in the last few months -- 40 years after a government ban in 1972. The key, say the donation-funded groups, has been bringing the Kalandars on board, providing them with money and incentives to re-train in other professions. The success points the way for other campaigns, such as the one to rid India of its snake charmers who can still be spotted illegally plying their trade, often with the snakes' mouths sewn shut. "It was very difficult to convince the bear trainers to give up their work. Most of them were very scared, they have never known any other way of life but this," WSPA campaign coordinator Aniruddha Mookerjee told AFP. <>
“Mohammed Afsar Khan handed over his bears to Wildlife Trust of India officers, who offered his family financial assistance and helped him and his younger brother learn driving skills. He used the funds to rent a tractor and ferry bricks from kilns to construction sites in Chhattisgarh state. Today, he owns his tractor and earns about 500 rupees a day. "India is changing rapidly and this is an outmoded, inhumane tradition. The trainers themselves realise now that it is far easier for them to earn a living doing other jobs," Menon said. <>
“Aziz Khan is another former bear-owner who never expected to leave his ancestral trade but was happy for the way out offered by WTI when officers approached him and his friends more than a decade ago. "I didn't earn much, but I was afraid to leave it. I didn't know how else I would be able to feed my three kids," the 45-year-old told AFP. WTI helped retrain Aziz Khan and his friends as bakers. They now run their own bakery, producing 350 loaves of bread each day. "I have no regrets today, it was a dead-end job and I am glad I was able to move on," he said. <>
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014